Arkansas ends mask mandate, but expands vaccine eligibility to all adults

Arkansas is officially ending its statewide mask mandate effective immediately, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) announced Tuesday.

Per The Hill:

Arkansas is officially ending its statewide mask mandate effective immediately, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) announced Tuesday.

At the same time, Hutchinson said he is opening COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to everyone over the age of 16.

Hutchinson said Arkansas will receive an extra 25,000 doses this week from the White House and has administered 1.1 million of its 1.6 million doses so far.

During a press conference, the governor said the state's coronavirus metrics for positive tests and hospitalizations have been consistently improving and are below the levels he said would be required to end the mandate.

Hutchinson set the criteria when he lifted most of the state's virus restrictions last month. Arkansas first imposed the mandate in July, becoming one of the last states to do so.

Despite the end of the mandate, the governor said he doesn't expect mask wearing to end, and asked that residents respect the decisions of businesses and venues in the state that are still requiring masks.

"Common sense should govern," Hutchinson said. "Please respect the decisions of others in regards to masks, and that is true whether it's private business or individuals."

He said all businesses have the option of requiring masks, and anticipates that many restaurants, hospitals and health care offices will continue to do so.

School districts will also have the option of continuing to require masks, but they will need to make a decision by April 15.

While Hutchinson previously said cities will be able to enact their own mask ordinances, they can't be enforced.

"They can consider it, I would be doubtful very many cities will," Hutchinson said.

The decision to lift the mandate comes despite the pleas of President Biden and top health officials, who have been calling on states to pause reopenings over fears of a new surge of coronavirus infections.

"I'm reiterating my call for every governor, mayor and local leader to maintain and reinstate the mask mandate," Biden said Monday. "Please, this is not politics. Reinstate the mandate if you let it down."

But Hutchinson said he is acting in the best interest of his state, regardless of what the White House thinks.

"We made our decision in Arkansas based on the criteria we set. This is a goal that we had, we achieved that," Hutchinson said. "The people of Arkansas know what needs to be done, and we expect them to do the right thing with their neighbors and businesses."

The governor said he told the White House that he appreciates the president's serious regard for the virus, and noted the state legislature extended its state of emergency.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Tuesday said she urged governors during a weekly call not to lift their mask mandates, but did not specifically call out any state by name.

According to a source familiar with the call, when White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients opened the floor for questions from the governors, there were none.